Use the Fishbowl when you want to organise a debate between students while also giving spectators an active role. It is suitable for discussing contradictory viewpoints, or to view a certain topic from multiple perspectives.

The simplest form involves organising an ‘inner circle’ with debaters and an ‘outer circle’ with spectators (the rest of the group). The inner circle debates with each other and the outer circle gives feedback later on the quality of the debate. You can give the debaters a certain role or have them defend a viewpoint that is determined in advance.

The role of the spectators is to observe, analyse and learn from the thinking processes of others. 

Activity goal
Assess | Exchange knowledge | Practice skills
In class
Hybrid | Offline | Online
< 30 minutes| < 60 minutes
Group size
Small | Medium

Teams, Zoom

Step 1

Decide on the topic of the debate and, if necessary, which viewpoints or statements are to come up during the debate.

Step 2

Determine in advance whether you will decide on the roles (debaters or spectators) or whether you will leave this to the students. If you choose for the latter, divide the whole group into smaller groups prior to the session. Have each group designate a debater.

Step 3

Each group should be given the topic of the debate and/or statement that needs to be defended or contradicted, and/or the viewpoint from which this should take place. Give each group some time to prepare for the debate.

Step 4

After the preparation, the debaters will be called forwards or to the inner circle, after which the debate starts. It may be a good idea to appoint a moderator, or to take on this role yourself.

Step 5

The spectators observe and analyse the debate (whether you use a form or not).

Step 6

A debriefing is held with the spectators after the debate. 

Variation 1

You can make the Fishbowl more dynamic by exchanging the roles during the Fishbowl. Spectators become debaters and debaters switch places to become spectators. A debater can, as it were, be relieved by a co-student. Make clear agreements about when and how often the switch can take place. 

Variation 2

You could also choose to leave 1 debater chair ‘empty’ so that spectators can take this place if they think they have a good point to make.


  • Organising a good Fishbowl activity demands good preparation. Decide on the learning goals you want to achieve. Make clear agreements with students about their roles and approach. Make sure that all those present know what is expected of them. Determine the scope and duration of the debate. Design an assessment form that the spectators can complete during and after the debate. Organise a debriefing in which the quality of the content of the debate and the process can be discussed. 
  • If you want the spectators to give specific feedback or pay attention to a certain aspect, you can give them a predetermined feedback form.
  • For more variations on the Fishbowl and how to implement these, visit Lakehead University




Please consider the tools and materials mentioned here as suggestions. In many cases it’s possible to use alternative tools. Please turn to the Learning & Innovation team of your faculty (EUROpens external or EMCOpens external) first to see which online and offline tools are available and how to apply them. 


Consider using Zoom or MS Teams for hosting an online fishbowl:

  • In Zoom the host has the ability to pin the videos of up to 9 participants to the main screen. 
  • In MS Teams the host can only pin one participant to the main screen using the Spotlight function (this will be upgraded soon hopefully). Still MS Teams can be used, since the software will automatically show those participants that have their video plus their audio turned on, on the main screen. This means that the host:
    • mutes all participants at the start of the discussion;
    • asks all active participants in the discussion to unmute and turn their cameras on;
    • asks all participants in the discussion to shortly introduce themselves to activate their audio. Now only the active participants are visible for all participants in the main screen.

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